Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 11—2 B.C.E.–100 C.E.—The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
“The greatest truths are the simplest: and so are the greatest men.”—19th-century British authors Julius and Augustus Hare
SOME 320 years after the death of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, a greater world conqueror was born. He would differ from Alexander in two major ways, as foretold at Luke 1:32, 33: ‘He will be called Son of the Most High, and there will be no end of his kingdom.’ Jesus Christ was this Ruler, and he was destined to live on in more than just the dusty pages of history books.
Jesus was a simple man who lived a simple life. He did not own a palatial home. He did not surround himself with the rich and powerful; neither did he have troves of earthly valuables. Jesus was born about October 2 B.C.E., into an unpretentious Jewish family under very simple circumstances in the small village of Bethlehem. His early life was uneventful. He was trained in the carpentry trade, “being the son, as the opinion was, of Joseph.”—Luke 3:23; Mark 6:3.
Even people who scoff at the idea of Jesus’ being God’s Son cannot deny that his birth introduced a new era, nor can anyone successfully dispute the statement made by the World Christian Encyclopedia that “Christianity has become the most extensive and universal religion in history.”
Not New but Different
Christianity was not a totally new religion. Its roots lay deep in the religion of the Israelites, nourished by the written Law of Jehovah God. Even before Israel became a nation, worship of Jehovah was practiced by their forefathers Noah, Abraham, and Moses and was actually a continuation of the oldest religion in existence, the true worship of the Creator as initially practiced in Eden. But the national and religious leaders of Israel allowed false religion with Babylonish overtones to seep into their worship and thus pollute it. As the World Bible notes: “The Jewish congregation at the time of the birth of Jesus was fouled with hypocrisies and cluttered with a formalism that obscured the underlying spiritual truths uttered by the great Hebrew prophets.”
Compared to the human complexities tacked onto the Jewish faith, Jesus’ teachings were marked by simplicity. Paul, one of Christianity’s most energetic first-century missionaries, showed this when he spoke of Christianity’s main qualities: “There remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Other religions speak of “faith, hope, and love” too, and yet Christianity is different. How?
Faith in Whom and in What?
Jesus emphasized the need to “exercise faith in God,” the One he described as the Creator. (John 14:1; Matthew 19:4; Mark 13:19) So Christianity differs from Jainism and Buddhism, both of which reject the idea of a Creator, claiming that the universe has always existed. And since Christ spoke about “the only true God,” he clearly did not believe in a multitude of true gods and goddesses as the religions of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome taught, or as Hinduism still teaches.—John 17:3.
The divine purpose, Jesus explained, was that he give ‘his soul as a ransom in exchange for many,’ to “save what was lost,” so that “everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10; John 3:16; compare Romans 5:17-19.) Belief in a sacrificial death to accomplish atonement from sin differs from Shintō, which refuses to acknowledge that original or inherent sin exists.
Jesus taught that there is just one true faith. He advised: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.” (Matthew 7:13, 14) The book Imperial Rome says: “[Early] Christians insisted that they alone possessed the truth, and that all other religions . . . were false.” This obviously differs from the Hindu-Buddhist attitude, which sees all religions as having merit.
What Kind of Hope?
Christian hope is centered in the Creator’s promise that his government will solve world problems. So from the start of Jesus’ ministry in 29 C.E., he encouraged people to “have faith in the good news” that “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” (Mark 1:15) Unlike Eastern religions, such as Ch’ŏndogyo, Jesus’ teaching did not stress nationalism as a way of realizing the Christian hope. In fact, Jesus rejected all suggestions that he enter politics. (Matthew 4:8-10; John 6:15) Obviously, he did not conclude, as some Jewish leaders do, that “humankind must actively help God bring the Messiah.”
The Christian hope includes the prospect of enjoying eternal life on earth under righteous conditions. (Compare Matthew 5:5; Revelation 21:1-4.) Is that not simple and easy to grasp? Not for many whose minds are clouded by the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, which The Faiths of Mankind refers to as “cessation” and yet “not annihilation.” This book asserts that, in reality, Nirvana is “not possible to describe.”
Love—For Whom and of What Kind?
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is: “You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind and with your whole strength.” (Mark 12:30) How different from religions that put top priority on human salvation, while slighting divine interests. Second in importance, Jesus said, is positive love of neighbor. “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you,” he advised, “you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12; 22:37-39) But notice how this differs from the negative teaching of Confucius: “What you do not wish to yourself, do not do to others.” Which love do you consider superior, the kind that prevents people from doing harm to you or the kind that motivates them to do good to you?
“The first test of a truly great man is his humility,” observed 19th-century English writer John Ruskin. In humbly offering his life in the interests of his Father’s name and reputation and, second, in behalf of man, Jesus showed love for both God and man. How different from the self-centered aspirations to godship of Alexander the Great, of whom Collier’s Encyclopedia says: “Throughout his life, which he repeatedly risked, there is no evidence that he ever gave a thought to the question of what was to happen to his people after his death.”
Also illustrating the love he had for God and man, Jesus, unlike his Hindu contemporaries in India, did not subscribe to a discriminating caste system. And unlike the Jewish groups that allowed their members to take up arms against unpopular rulers, Jesus warned his followers that “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—Matthew 26:52.
Faith Proved by Works
Early Christianity’s preoccupation with faith, hope, and love manifested itself in conduct. Christians were told to “put away the old personality” common to sinful mankind and to “put on the new personality which was created according to God’s will in true righteousness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) This they did. Interestingly, the late Harold J. Laski, English political scientist, said: “The test, surely, of a creed is not the ability of those who accept it to announce their faith; its test is its ability to change their behavior in the ordinary round of daily life.”—(Italics ours.) Compare 1 Corinthians 6:11.
Imbued with unshakable faith and well-founded hope and motivated by true love, the early Christians set out to obey Jesus’ final command to them before his ascension to heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them . . . , teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.”—Matthew 28:19, 20.
At Pentecost 33 C.E., God’s spirit was poured out upon 120 Christian disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem. The Christian congregation had been born!* Its members were miraculously endowed on that day with the ability to speak in foreign languages, thus enabling them to communicate with the Jews and proselytes from other countries who were in Jerusalem attending a festival. (Acts 2:5, 6, 41) And with what result! On a single day, the number of Christians jumped from about 120 to over 3,000!
Jesus limited his preaching largely to the Jews. But shortly after Pentecost, the Christian apostle Peter was used to open “The Way” for Samaritans, who observed the first five books of the Bible, and later, in 36 C.E., for all non-Jews. Paul became “an apostle to the nations” and embarked on three missionary journeys. (Romans 11:13) Congregations were thus formed, and they flourished. “Their zeal in spreading the faith was unbounded,” says the book From Christ to Constantine, adding: “Christian witnessing was both widespread and effective.” Persecution of Christians backfired, helping spread the message, as wind fans a flame. The Bible book of Acts relates an exciting history of unstoppable Christian activity during Christianity’s youth.
‘That’s Not the Christianity I Know!’
Is that your reaction upon hearing this description of Christianity’s early days? Have you found that instead of possessing strong faith, many professed Christians today are full of doubt, unsure of what to believe? Have you found that instead of hope, many of them are gripped with fear, uncertain as to the future? And have you found, as 18th-century English satirist Jonathan Swift expressed it, that “we have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another”?
Paul foretold this negative development. “Oppressive wolves”—leaders Christian in name only—would “rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) How far-reaching would this be? Our next issue will explain.
To outsiders Christianity was referred to as “The Way.” “It was first in Antioch [probably between 10 and 20 years later] that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.”—Acts 9:2; 11:26.
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A Christian has faith in a living God
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Christian hope looks forward to a restored earthly paradise
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Christian love is impartial in helping others to serve God